NEW YORK – In December 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a terse and pointed letter to his Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie M. Shaw, which read: “My dear Secretary Shaw, I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty? Sincerely yours, Teddy Roosevelt.” The Saint-Gaudens in question was Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), the Irish-born artist who became one of the great American sculptors of the late 19th century and a great contributor to the period known as The Gilded Age.
Roosevelt didn’t just pick a name out of a hat when he referenced Saint-Gaudens in his missive. He’d been a longtime admirer of the sculptor. When Saint-Gaudens was approached about being commissioned to design new American coinage, he rose to the challenge, despite the fact that he was already dying from cancer. As a result, he only re-designed two coins, both of them gold: the $20 Double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head. They were an instant hit with the public and became very desirable to collectors when, in 1933, the other Roosevelt, FDR, ordered the US off the gold standard and instructed the majority of gold coins to be melted down. Luckily, some survived.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin to a French shoemaker father and an Irish mother. The family immigrated to America when Augustus was still an infant, and he grew up in New York City. At age 13 he became an apprentice to a cameo-cutter named Louis Avet. Two years later he took up with another cameo cutter, Jules Le Brethon, and enrolled in New York’s National Academy of Design. By age 19 his apprenticeship was completed and he set sail for Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, becoming one of the first Americans to study sculpture in France. In 1870 he moved to Rome, where he supported himself by cameo-cutting and copying famous antique statues on commission. Slowly, his own style emerged.
Armed with what he’d learned in Paris and Rome, and already something of an artistic rock star in Europe, Saint-Gaudens returned to New York in 1875, where he introduced America to the Beaux Arts style. He was hired by Tiffany Studios and became part of a team of artists that decorated the Trinity Church in Boston. The most important work of his early career was the monument to Admiral David Farragut, executed in 1880 and installed at New York’s Madison Square Park on a pedestal designed by noted architect Stanford White. After that, his career was on a skyrocket trajectory and commissions just poured in.
In 1881, working with the painter John LeFarge, Saint-Gaudens created two caryatids for a fireplace in Cornelius Vanderbilt’s residence. A work titled Amor Caritas preoccupied him, on and off, between 1880 and 1898. In another collaboration with Stanford White, from 1892-1894, he produced a monumental gilded copper weathervane, titled Diana, for the second Madison Square Garden building. It stood on a 300-foot-tall tower, making Diana the highest point in New York City. It would be one of Saint-Gaudens’ more memorable and iconic works.
Leigh Keno, whose company Keno Auctions in New York City handled the sale of a Diana sculpture in January of this year for a robust $518,400, called Saint-Gaudens “the greatest sculptor of the American Renaissance,” adding, “He singlehandedly was responsible for transforming and redirecting the landscape of American sculpture from a rigid Neoclassical aesthetic to a naturalistic style. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of his contributions not only as a brilliant master sculptor of public and private works but also as a teacher and arbiter of taste for artists of the early 20th century.”
Saint-Gaudens enjoyed much critical success for his monuments commemorating America’s Civil War heroes, many of which still stand today. These include the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common; Abraham Lincoln: The Man in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, which is widely considered the finest portrait statue in the country; the General John Logan Memorial in Chicago’s Grant Park; William Tecumseh Sherman, also known as the Sherman Monument, erected in 1903 in New York’s Grand Army Plaza, just outside Central Park; and a bronze bas-relief monument of Robert G. Shaw, a colonel of an African American regiment.
Saint-Gaudens was a huge fan of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. Particularly taken by the writer’s collection of stories in the 1882 book New Arabian Nights, Saint-Gaudens told a mutual friend, Will Low, that he’d be honored to model a portrait if Stevenson ever came to the United States. That opportunity presented itself in 1887. Saint-Gauden’s preliminary sketches turned into a five-year project for a medallion, one depicting Stevenson, in bed, writing. (The author was ill at the time with tuberculosis, but he preferred to write in bed regardless.) The resulting medallion, one of many by Saint-Gaudens, was reproduced for the Stevenson memorial in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Saint-Gaudens said of Stevenson, “I’d gladly go a thousand miles to sit with him.”
As to the demand for Saint-Gaudens’ creations today, Leigh Keno said the current market for works by the artist is strong. “The vast majority of record auction prices for the best examples of Saint-Gaudens’ work have been set within the past ten years,” he said. “As more of his pieces enter institutions, and demand outweighs supply, I feel that prices for his works will only continue to rise. The strong price fetched by Diana is an excellent example of this upward trend.”
The Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire, was once the artist’s residence and studio and is now open to the public on a seasonal basis. Oh, and that curt letter from Teddy Roosevelt to his Treasury Secretary in 1904? It came up for bid at Heritage Galleries in Dallas on August 3, 2012. With the buyer’s premium, it sold for a cool $94,000.
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